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Vaclav Havel, Dissident Playwright Who Led Czechoslovakia, Dead at 75

Vaclav Havel, the writer and dissident whose eloquent dissections of Communist rule helped to destroy it in revolutions that brought down the Berlin Wall and swept Havel himself into power, died on Sunday. He was 75.

Vaclav Havel, the writer and dissident whose eloquent dissections of Communist rule helped to destroy it in revolutions that brought down the Berlin Wall and swept Havel himself into power, died on Sunday. He was 75.

His assistant, Sabina Tancevova, said that Mr. Havel died in his sleep at his country house in northern Bohemia. “He suffered from long-term health problems to which he succumbed,” Ms. Tancevova said, adding that Mr. Havel’s wife Dagmar was at his side.

A Czech embassy spokesman in Paris, Michal Dvorak, said in a statement that Mr. Havel, a heavy smoker who almost died during surgery for lung cancer in 1996, had been suffering from severe respiratory ailments since last spring.

A shy yet resilient, unfailingly polite but dogged man who articulated the power of the powerless, Mr. Havel spent five years in and out of Communist prisons, lived for two decades under close secret-police surveillance and endured the suppression of his plays and essays. He served 14 years as president, wrote 19 plays, inspired a film and a rap song and remained one of his generation’s most seductively nonconformist writers.

All the while, he came to personify the soul of the Czech nation. His moral authority and his moving use of the Czech language cast him as the dominant figure during Prague street demonstrations in 1989 and as the chief behind-the-scenes negotiator who brought about the peaceful transfer of power known as the Velvet Revolution, a revolt so smooth that it took just weeks to complete, without a single bullet fired.

He was chosen as democratic Czechoslovakia’s first president — a role he insisted was more duty than aspiration — and after the country split in January 1993, he became president of the Czech Republic. He linked the country firmly to the west, clearing the way for the Czech Republic to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and the European Union five years later.

Both as a dissident and as a national leader, Mr. Havel impressed the West as one of the most important political thinkers in Central Europe.

Political ideas, not economics, interested him. His country, widely considered to have made a smooth transition from Communism to market democracy, came in for his devastating critique in December 1997, when he attacked corruption and the sell-off of government-run industries in a thinly veiled barb at his political nemesis, the longtime prime minister — and now president — Vaclav Klaus.

Expressing disdain for what had happened to Czech society under Mr. Klaus — an ally of convenience in the days of the 1989 revolution — Mr. Havel told parliament that a “post-Communist morass” had allowed “the most immoral people” to achieve financial success at the expense of others.

Mr. Klaus, a right-wing maverick who espouses the untrammeled capitalism Mr. Havel disliked, succeeded Mr. Havel as president in 2003 and remains a force in Czech politics. On Sunday, Mr. Klaus paid tribute to Mr. Havel, calling him “the symbol of the new era of the Czech state.”

While many in the West worshiped Mr. Havel — President Bill Clinton once compared him to Gandhi — in his native country he was regarded with deep affection but also ambivalence, and even scorn. His slogan during the revolution that truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred was mocked by foes, who accused him of naïveté.

Mr. Havel’s standing with Czechs faltered somewhat in 1997 after his surprise marriage to Dagmar Veskrnova , an actress who had once played a topless vampire in a film, only a year after the death of his much admired first wife of 31 years, Olga. In January 1998 the parliament, resentful of what was seen as Mr. Havel’s arrogant behavior with his new wife and his meddling in political affairs, elected him to a second presidential term by only one vote.

Erik Tabery, a Czech journalist and author of a book on the Czech presidency, said some Czechs resented Mr. Havel for holding up an uncomfortable mirror to their history of passivity.

“While the communists ruled for 40 years, most Czechs stayed at home and did nothing,” Mr. Tabery said. “Havel did something.”

His star status and personal interests drew world leaders to Prague, from the Dalai Lama, with whom Mr. Havel meditated for hours, to Mr. Clinton, who, during a state visit in 1994, joined a saxophone jam session at Mr. Havel’s favorite jazz club.

Even after Mr. Havel retired in 2003, leaders sought him out, including President Obama. At their meeting in March 2009, Mr. Havel warned of the perils of limitless hope being projected onto a leader. Disappointment, he noted, could boil over into anger and resentment. Mr. Obama replied that he was becoming acutely aware of the possibility.

In the first months of Mr. Havel’s own presidency, visitors to Prague’s labyrinthine Castle included Frank Zappa, and the Rolling Stones. He covered the side of the building with a large neon-red heart, and pedaled the corridors with a child’s scooter.

Critics said Mr. Havel, self-professed reluctant leader, learned to like power a little too much. Many Czechs were also disappointed that he refused to outlaw the Communist Party or to put on trial the system that had allowed neighbors to send one each another to labor camps.

It was as a dissident that Mr. Havel most clearly championed the ideals of a civil society. He helped found Charter 77, the longest enduring human rights movement in the former Soviet bloc, and keenly articulated the lasting humiliations that Communism imposed on the individual.

In his now iconic 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” which circulated in underground editions in Czechoslovakia and was smuggled to other Warsaw Pact countries and to the West, Mr. Havel foresaw that the opposition could eventually prevail against the totalitarian state.

Mr. Havel, a child of bourgeois privilege whose family lost its wealth when the Communists came to power in 1948, first became active in the Writers Union in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when his chief target was not Communism so much as it was the “reform Communism” that many were seeking.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period when reform Communists, led by Alexander Dubcek, believed that “Socialism with a human face” was possible, Mr. Havel argued that Communism could never be tamed.

He wrote an article, “On the Theme of an Opposition,” that advocated the end of single party rule — a bold idea at the time. In May 1968, he was invited by the American theater producer Joseph Papp to see the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of his second play, “The Memorandum.”

It was the last time Mr. Havel was allowed out of the country under Communist rule; the visit contributed to an abiding affection for New York.

After the Soviets sent tanks to suppress the Prague reforms in August 1968, Mr. Havel persisted in the fight for political freedom. In August 1969 he organized a petition of 10 points that repudiated the politics of “normalization” with the Soviet Union. He was accused of subversion, and in 1970 was vilified on state television and banned as a writer.

At the time, tens of thousands of Communists were expelled from the party, deemed too sympathetic to the Dubcek reforms that were being reversed by the Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husak. Mr. Havel kept writing, and in 1975, in an open letter to Mr. Husak — the leader he eventually replaced — he attacked the regime, arguing that Czechoslovakia operated under “political apartheid” that separated the rulers from the ruled.

The government, Mr. Havel wrote, had chosen “the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity.”

In 1977, Mr. Havel was one of three leading organizers of Charter 77, a group of 242 signers who called for the human rights guaranteed under the 1975 Helsinki accords. Mr. Havel was quickly arrested, tried and convicted of subversion and served three months in prison. He was arrested again in May 1979 on a charge of subversion and was sentenced to four and a half years.

The severity of this sentence brought protests from the Communist parties in France, Italy and Spain. Mr. Havel was eventually released in February 1983, suffering from pneumonia.

In prison, he was prohibited from writing anything but letters about “family matters” to his wife. These missives, he said, enabled him to make some sense of his incarceration. One of his themes was a warning to his persecutors that by their repression of human freedom, they were ultimately undercutting their own existence.

His refusal to break with Charter 77 led to other, briefer periods of detention as his celebrity status grew abroad. In January 1989, he was detained and tried after defying police orders to stay away from a demonstration.

His release in May that year marked the beginning of the end for Czechoslovakia’s Communist government, which was badly out of step with reforms under way in neighboring Poland and Hungary and, under the leadership of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in the Soviet Union itself.

During the 1980s, Mr. Havel refused government pressure to emigrate. Not widely known at home outside dissident and intellectual circles in Prague, he became a focus for some Western diplomats and visitors, who would tramp up to the top-floor apartment of a six-story house that his father had built and philosophize with Mr. Havel while gazing across the Vltava river at the Castle.

He earned virtually nothing from the menial job he was forced to take at a brewery, but had money from the royalties of publications overseas. He bought a Mercedes-Benz and decorated his book-crammed apartment with abstract paintings. He also owned the cottage at Hradecek where he died.

Mr. Havel’s chance at power came in November 1989, eight days after the Berlin Wall fell.

A tentative dialogue had already started when the police broke up an officially sanctioned student demonstration on Nov. 17, beating many demonstrators and arresting others.

Two days later, Mr. Havel convened a meeting in the Magic Lantern, a Prague theater, and he and other dissidents established the Civic Forum. It called for the resignation of the leading Communists, investigation of the police action and the release of all political prisoners.

The next day, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets in Prague — the first of several demonstrations that ended Communist domination.

It was in the theater’s smoke-filled rooms that Mr. Havel mapped the strategy and proclamations that finally undermined Communist rule. “It was extraordinary the degree to which everything ultimately revolved around this one man,” wrote the historian Timothy Garton Ash, who was present.

“In almost all the Forum’s major decisions and statements,” Mr. Ash added, “he was the final arbiter, the one person who could somehow balance the very different tendencies and interests in the movement.”

Once installed at the Castle, Mr. Havel gradually discarded crumpled jeans and sweaters for crisp shirts and somber suits. Yet until his marriage to Ms. Veskrnova, when he appeared in evening wear for a photograph in a book describing their first year together, he seemed more at home in the counterculture. On a l trip abroad in 1995, he ignored awaiting dignitaries and lingered on an airport tarmac for a chat with Mick Jagger.

”Initially he had difficulty changing his mentality from being a dissident to a politician,” said Jiri Pehe, who was became his chief political adviser from in 1997 to 1999. But Mr. Pehe argued that Mr. Havel was a better president than many had expected.

“Because of his moral authority, he was able to stretch a weak presidency beyond what was written in the Constitution,.” Mr. Pehe said.

In June 1992, as Czechoslovakia began to break up, Mr. Havel resigned as president rather than preside over the split. He spoke then of the difficult metamorphosis from philosopher to politician.

“Putting into practice the ideals to which I have adhered all my life, which guided me in the dissident years, becomes much more difficult in practical politics,” he said, before being later elected president of the new Czech Republic.

As soon as he came to power, Mr. Havel steered his country toward the West. On his first visit to the United States as president, in February 1990, Mr. Havel stressed that American financial aid was not as important as technical assistance to help his country — historically an industrial power — compete again in the international market place.

Days later, he met Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow and swiftly negotiated the withdrawal of 70,000 Soviet troops stationed in Czechoslovakia.

At home, Mr. Havel’s role evolved into one of educator and moral persuader. In weekly radio talks, he often addressed human rights, touching on issues that were sensitive in Czech society. He championed, for instance, the rights of Gypsies, or Roma, despite surveys that showed that most Czechs would not want a Gypsy as a neighbor.

Early in his presidency, he also formed a commission to inquire into the expulsion of three million Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II, a move that went against popular sentiment.

Born on Oct. 5, 1936, Mr. Havel was one of two sons of Vaclav and Bozena Havel. His father, a civil engineer, was a major commercial real estate developer who acquired important property. When the Communists took power three years after World War II, the family holdings were taken over by the state. After Communist rule ended, Mr. Havel and his brother, Ivan, won back much of the valuable property.

Mr. Havel would later write that his privileged upbringing heightened his sensitivity to inequality.

“I was different from my schoolmates whose families did not have domestics, nurses or chauffeurs,” he wrote., “But I experienced these differences as a disadvantage, I felt excluded from the company of my peers.”

He started writing, he said, to overcome his feeling of being an outsider. Because of his background, the Communists blocked him from going to university, and at age 15 he started work as a technician in a chemistry lab.

Mr. Havel was called up for military service in 1957, and wrote a satirical play while in the army. In 1960, he joined the Theater on the Balustrade as a stagehand. In 1963 he wrote his first publicly performed play, “The Garden Party,” about a person who has lost his sense of identity to such a degree that he goes to look for himself in his own apartment.

In 1956 Mr. Havel met Olga Splichalova, a lively, dashing actress, whom he married in 1964. A working- class heroine for many Czechs, she helped to inspire the collection of essays, written as letters from prison, and published as “Letters to Olga.”

In dissident circles and beyond, Mr. Havel was a celebrated womanizer. Olga, who was fiercely defensive of her husband, was said by friends to have a certain reassurance when he was in prison because, “at least she knew where he was.”

When he became president, Mrs. Havel seldom took part in formal events, but used her new platform to campaign for the handicapped. She died of cancer in January 1996. They had no children. Mr. Havel is survived by his wife, Dagmar, and his brother, Ivan.

Alison Smale contributed reporting.

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